I have always been a ‘more is better’ kind of person. I see that trait in most others so I figure I am normal. However, I have always pushed the ‘more’ to the limit, often to the breaking point. I guess in this regard I am less normal. As I became a ‘lao tzu’ (i.e., 老子 = old person, father) my age and aching bones led me to approach things a little differently, and happily with some unexpectedly good results.
A key phrase from chapter 48 helps me greatly. It goes like this: “One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone “. I know that sounds silly on the face of it. Given the ‘Just Do It’ culture in which we live, it is essential to read between the lines.
The reason ‘more is better’ drives me is because I have always viscerally felt that approach would give me what I need. I say viscerally felt because it has been a subconscious innate drive for most of my life. Only after repeatedly hitting the wall, so to speak, did I begin to examine that side of my nature more deeply.
‘More is better’ is about quantity. We have a common and innate expectation that if we do something more, we will be better off. That means more practice, more study, more work, more money, more charity, more eating healthy, more exercise, more friends, more fame, more sex, more justice, more peace… more of whatever we value.
If we were living in the wild like other animals, the ‘more is better’ drive would often turn out to be healthy and balanced. Thanks to civilization, we live more comfortable and secure lives than animals in the wild. However, we are biologically still an animal, which means we have a lot more survival energy to spend than most civilized circumstances demand. The result: we innately overdo action by pursuing a ‘more is better’ path in whatever activity we feel important. Survival instinct is always driving us regardless of circumstances.
As it happens, life naturally follows a pattern pointed out in chapter 36,
If you would have a thing shrink, You must first stretch it;
If you would have a thing weakened, You must first strengthen it;
If you would have a thing laid aside, You must first set it up;
If you would take from a thing, You must first give to it.
It took me a lifetime, but I have finally laid much of this ‘more is better’ aside, except for more time. Time is too mysterious and ephemeral to manipulate, yet it still conforms to the pattern. You might say, birth sets time up, and death lays time aside.
Another ideal, ‘less is more’, has attracted attention in recent times. This 19th century proverbial phrase parallels chapter 48 above (1), and rings true for many stressed out people these days. It looks like civilization finally reached a point where ‘too much of a good thing’ has become a widespread reality.
‘Less is more’ is about quality. The most amazing thing I have found is that attention to quality in what I do is so much more effective, practically and spiritually, than my gut impulses ever led me to feel. Indeed, one minute in quality equals hours in quantity. To this day, I must maintain a constant background awareness of this life truth: Less is truly more.
In summary: Really trusting that ‘less is more’ can deliver what no amount of doing more ever can. Yet, nothing is ever that easy, is it? The hitch lies in trusting ‘less is more’ viscerally enough to influence daily actions. Experience is the key. All you need do is prove to yourself through personal experience that ‘less truly is more’, and that quality trumps quantity. Well… at least that gets the ball rolling in the right direction.
(1) The following translation of chapter 48 stays closer to the literal Chinese. The Tao Te Ching, Word for Word online commentary on this chapter offers a slightly different angle as well.